Witold Lutoslawski was born on 25 January 1913. The years of World War One were spent in and around Moscow, where his father and uncle were executed by the Bolsheviks for alleged counter-revolutionary activities. Returning to Warsaw in 1919, Lutoslawski studied the violin with a former pupil of Joachim and, from 1927, composition with Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil Witold Maliszewski. In 1933 he abandoned his study of mathematics at Warsaw University to enter the Warsaw Conservatory. The première in 1939 of his Symphonic Variations marked his professional début as a composer, but World War Two curtailed plans for study in Paris. Taken prisoner as an officer cadet, he escaped and returned to Warsaw, spending the war years performing in ‘unofficial’ concerts and recitals, often with the composer Andrzej Panufnik.
After the war, Lutoslawski was able to complete his long-delayed First Symphony (Naxos 8.554283). The Stalinist direction of post-war Polish society meant that composition was largely restricted to arrangements of folk-music and works for children, though the Concerto for Orchestra (Naxos 8.553779) shows how such accessibility could be harnessed to the virtuosity of the modern orchestra. The cultural thaw which set in after 1954 enabled him to experiment more freely; initially with serial procedures in Musique funèbre (Naxos 8.553202), then with chance techniques in the works from Jeux vénitiens (Naxos 8.554283) onwards. Major works of the period include the song-cycle Paroles tissées (Naxos 8.554283) for Peter Pears, and the Cello Concerto (Naxos 8.553625) for Mstislav Rostropovich.
A new emphasis on melodic elaboration is evident from the mid-1970s, beginning with the song sequence for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Les espaces du sommeil (Naxos 8.553423). The Third Symphony (Naxos 8.553423), completed in 1983 after a decade’s gestation, and first performed by the Chicago Symphony and Georg Solti, quickly became the most performed symphony of the modern repertoire and sealed the composer’s reputation as a cultural figure of world renown, a standing maintained through to his last major work, the Fourth Symphony (Naxos 8.553202), first performed in Los Angeles in 1993. After a short illness, Lutoslawski died on 7 February 1994, aged eighty-one.